Has Law School Become a Dead End Trap for the Unwary?
It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.
Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.
Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.
And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years.
This dismal situation was not created by the current recession—which merely spread the pain up the chain into the lower reaches of elite schools. This has been going on for years.
The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures—96% employed—by counting as “employed” any job at all, legal or non-legal, including part time jobs, including unemployed graduates hired by the school as research assistants (or by excluding unemployed graduates “not currently seeking” a job, or by excluding graduates who do not supply employment information). They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page—“average starting salary $125,000 private full time employment”—are actually calculated based upon only about 25% of the graduating class (although you can’t easily figure this out from the information provided by the schools). They know all this because they know of too many classmates who didn’t get jobs or who got low paying jobs—the numbers don’t jibe with their first hand knowledge.
They know the score now. But they didn’t know it when they first applied to law school. They bought into the numbers provided by law schools. The mission of these sites is to educate, to warn away, the incoming crop of prospective law students—to save them from becoming victims of the law school scam.
Wait a minute, we protest.
Law professors are not scammers. We advance the rule of law and justice. We promote efficient legal institutions. We develop legal knowledge and knowledge about law for the good of society. We are the conscience of the legal profession. Indeed, we made a financial sacrifice to become academics when we could have earned more money as practicing lawyers.
The students made their choices. They should have done more research. They should have thought more carefully about the consequences of taking on so much debt. It was their foolish over-optimism to think they would place among the top 10% of the class and land the scarce corporate law jobs. They should have known better. (If the numbers on our website are misleading it’s the Administration’s fault; and we don’t set the high tuition.) Don’t blame us.
It is their dream to become a lawyer—we provide them with the opportunity and what they make of it is up to them. Besides, a law degree is valuable even if you don’t get a job as a lawyer. It improves your reasoning ability. It opens all kinds of doors.
When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,0000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities.
Go here to read the depressing rest.
I have cautioned readers before on the drawbacks of going to law school here and here. When I graduated from law school I had $7,000 in debt which was slightly under half of my first year salary of $16,000.00. (I was called in by the local IRS office because they had a hard time believing that any attorney would be earning so little.) Now many fledgling attorneys are graduating owing 100k-150k, with many of them earning around 40k their first year if they can find any job in this pig of an economy. If I had faced that type of debt to earnings ratio when I went to law school, the world would now have one less attorney.
My eldest son is starting college in the Fall. He has expressed a desire to go on to law school and practice law with me, although I have told him that I believe there are many easier ways to earn money than the path I have chosen. Assuming he persists in this desire, his mother and I will pay for law school for him, which is frankly the only way I would even consider going to law school today.
I have no complaints about my professional life. I have been self-employed for a quarter of a century, rather enjoy most of what I do as an attorney and make a decent living doing it. However, if I had been saddled with a debt two to three times my annual salary after graduation from law school, I do not see how I would have been able to handle that debt in the first lean decade when I was starting out. Anyone planning to go to law school needs to think long and hard about it due to the enormous cost and limited initial return for most attorneys.